A FLORENCECOURT man living with Cerebral Palsy says he is seeking legal advice over the “aggressive” attitude he says he experienced by a Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessor last week.
Terence Charles is one of over 125,000 people across Northern Ireland who are having to participate in a PIP assessment as the government phases out the previous Disability Living Allowance (DLA) to make way for the new disability benefits scheme.
Already an infamous necessity for many living with disability, PIP is harder to get than DLA because it places less focus on each individual’s diagnosis.
Having watched a BBC Spotlight programme which outlined other people’s experiences of the PIP assessment, Terence says he felt prepared for his own meeting last week.
But he left the assessment feeling “stressed”, “intimidated” and “as if I was trying to defraud the system for requesting this Personal Independence Payment”.
During the assessment he had to take part in a physical test where, amongst other exercises, and as a man who relies on an electric chair or stick for mobility, he was asked to bend down and touch his toes.
He adds that many of the questions he was asked were either “invasive” or “pointless”, including: how long it took him to go to the bathroom, how many classroom assistants he had when he was in school and whether, when he went to a restaurant and ordered food, he would pick at it or eat it all.
“I found it degrading and I felt like my personal space had been invaded,” said Terence.
He wants other people to learn from his experience, advising them to seek “as much help as they can” ahead of their own assessments.
“A week before Christmas I got a form that I had to fill out. It was 54 pages long and took four hours to complete — that was with the help of someone from Welfare Rights Advice Centre. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken on my own,” he said.
Terence received a letter advising him of his assessment appointment on January 2.
“My support worker came with me,” he explained.
“But during the assessment, when she corrected me on one of the dates I had given, she was told not to interrupt again or she would be asked to leave the room.”
Terence said the assessor was accompanied by someone whom he assumed was a ‘security guard’ during the meeting.
“He stayed there throughout the meeting, not too far away from her,” he said, “At the start of the meeting I asked her what qualifications she had to conduct the assessments.
“She looked at me and said: ‘Do you not want to continue with this meeting?’
“After the meeting my support worker told me she had felt very uncomfortable about the kind of questions I was being asked.
“She said she felt there was no point in her being there given that she was warned twice that she would be asked to leave when she had tried to help me.
“And she said I shouldn’t have had to take part in the physical assessment but that she didn’t feel she could say anything since she had already been told off for speaking up for me.
“I just did what I was fit to do in the physical assessment and when I told the assessor I couldn’t bend down and touch my toes, she looked at me as if to say: ‘Well, you haven’t even tried’.”
Terence says he found the questioning “frustrating”.
“I said at one point: ‘You are asking me so many questions you might as well ask me how much money I have in the bank. I would far rather answer that than some of the questions I am being asked here.’.”
He says he believes the 54-page application form, along with face-to-face assessment, was a “waste of time and money”.
“The same questions, being asked over an over again, in a form and face-to-face. I see no point. If the government really wants to save money why don’t they invest in things like Ulster Sheltered Employment and get people with disabilities into work instead of throwing money away on assessments like this?
“There will still be people out there who will be able to cheat the system and get benefits they don’t really need. And the people who are honest will pay the price.
“My support worker said she thought the assessor was constantly trying to catch me out with the questions being asked.”
Terence says anyone about to attend a PIP assessment should first go to their local Citizen’s Advice Bureau.
“It is important that you are given the opportunity to explain yourself, your situation and your needs properly, and you shouldn’t feel intimidated or rushed during your assessment. I have no record of the meeting with the assessor. She took down notes on her laptop but I was never given a print-off, or asked to sign anything to say it was an accurate account of what I had said.
“I did print off a photocopy of my original form, and I would advise anyone else to do the same,” he added.
The Department for Communities has tasked Capita with rolling out assessments in Northern Ireland.
A Capita spokesperson, said: “Our disability assessors are healthcare professionals with the required skills and knowledge to carry out functional-based PIP assessments across Northern Ireland, in line with the guidance set. We are committed to carrying out PIP assessments in a professional and empathetic manner. Individuals are welcome to bring a companion to their assessment to provide support and disability assessors follow the protocol set out in the PIP Assessment Guide when it comes to recording information provided by a companion. If any individual has any feedback regarding their assessment, they can contact us via phone, text, email or post so we can look into it as required.”